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Can a single person record a rock song on their own?

Here is how I imagine it: A musician records one instrument (e.g. bass), then has the recording played and mixed with the sound of the next instrument (e.g. drums). Then the recordings of the first two instruments are put on 2 tracks and played through the headphones while playing the third instrument (e.g. guitar). This new recording with 3 instruments can now be put together and sent to the earphones while the vocals are recorded, and then the whole song on all the tracks is set.

Does this work in practice? Even though in theory it makes sense, can musicians do this successfully in the real world?

Would you do this in software or do separate recordings and mix in software and feed it to the headphones directly from the computer?

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I recorded all my songs this way: flyawaytigers.com . Also the first two songs here: greenemeansgo.com/album/studio-samples –  Sam Greene Mar 14 '11 at 23:43
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3 Answers

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It's been done before... before there were computers, using tape... Check out artists like Isoa Tomita ("early" synth musician), Vangelis, and to some extent Tangerine Dream.

[As an aside: many groups still record with only a handful of musicians at one time. Often "extra" musicians (strings, brass) are brought in separately to do their fills after "the band" has long since laid down its work.]

If I were doing this, I would would record each instrument into a separate track so I could mix and adjust as needed. It also allows going back and fixing mistakes (I'm not that good) without having to re-record everything. (Often times re-takes are actually recorded to yet another track!)

The order you lay down the tracks should be planned so that you can best keep time. If the drums are always there, you might want to lay those down (or at least a simplified version of them) first. That gives you a good time base to work with. Then build up with melody, vocals, etc. I would probably put the bass in toward the end as it adds depth but not structure to the music.

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why do i always think that the bass gives the structure? –  Vass Mar 15 '11 at 14:28
    
This would probably make a good question.... I think of the rhythm and melody as being the structure on which everything else hangs. It's probably just my classical music background. –  jwernerny Mar 15 '11 at 16:39
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This is how I do it.

Put a click track on (aka metronome) - record the guitar, then drums, then bass, then vocals. You can move the order around. I like to have the guitar down for the drums to feed off. Then record the bass to react to the kick drum pattern - they are usually in sync for rock. Put your vocal on there and then top it off with some keys, sound efx, horns, shakers, tabourines etc. if wanted or needed.

Click track is not required, but it's much easier to overdub drums with a steady beat. If you don't want to use a click, record the drums first.

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I'd like to point out that recording to a click track can be problematic; while it's a great way to keep the tempo synced, it can rob a song of life and energy. It's a call to make on a song-by-song basis. –  neilfein Mar 15 '11 at 12:25
    
@Neil Very true. Depends on the player as well - I find a click track will help some drummers. –  Sam Greene Mar 15 '11 at 18:17
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There's no reason why not. This practice is sometimes called "overdubbing."

There are of course some considerations to think about:

  • Bands often play off of each other in groups, and there's a sort of vibe that can come out when doing this that is very hard to capture when doing separate recordings. When you're overdubbing, you'll respond to little subtleties in your previous recordings, but your previous takes cannot respond to subtleties in your current performance. When recording several musicians at once, this response goes back and forth and many people prefer this mood.
  • You'll likely want to have some kind of pitch or timing reference when laying down your first track. This track is going to act as the reference for the other tracks, so whatever goes into it will be reflected in the others. Metronomes can help here, as can sketching out your track using a MIDI instrument or something similar.
  • If you're using a microphone, the resulting mix of separately-recorded tracks will be subtly different than if you had recorded everyone at once in a nice-sounding room. The importance of this is up to you to decide. It might not be important to you at all.

For what it's worth, I'm just a hobbyist, but I've recorded this way. I usually record on my own or with one other person and the styles of music I get involved with (usually electronic at some level) don't often require the vibe of musicians playing together.

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